Part one of our look at Whitney Houston’s discography-which covers her debut to 1995’s Waiting To Exhale soundtrack, can be found here.
“The Preacher’s Wife” Original Soundtrack (1996)
The soundtrack to this Penny Marshall-directed movie was basically an opportunity to observe Whitney in her natural habitat. Her voice was a product of the church, and this soundtrack placed her right back in there, for solid results. I’m not much for gospel music, but Whitney’s singing is the most spirited it had ever been. She tries to recapture some of the “I Will Always Love You” magic for her cover of The Four Tops’ “I Believe In You & Me,” and if that remake doesn’t scale the same heights as her iconic rendition of Dolly Parton’s classic, it’s through no fault of her own-it’s just because she’s dealing with a weaker song. The pop-oriented songs on this set are among her best-the inspirational “Step By Step,” the seductive Babyface ballad “My Heart Is Calling,” and even the cheesy hip-hop/gospel hybrid “Somebody Bigger Than You & I,” which finds her joined by Faith Evans, Monica (both of whom owe a not insignificant stylistic debt to Whitney) as well as ½ of New Edition, including her hubby Bobby Brown.
“My Love Is Your Love” (1998)
Whitney gets an upgrade for the late Nineties on this, her first non-soundtrack studio album in eight years. With somewhat meatier material than on her early days, and a guest cast that includes Mariah Carey, Missy Elliott, Wyclef Jean and several others, Whitney fit in to the modern pop ‘n B scene quite nicely. “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay” is appropriately sassy (and not forced like the Elliott-featured “In My Business”-remember the days when the usage of the word “hoes” in a Whitney Houston song was controversial?) but despite the presence of the usual cheeseball ballads (this time courtesy of Babyface,) Whitney makes her presence felt with her theatrical readings of two excellent slow jams-and it’s telling that they’re both bittersweet, kiss-off songs: “I Learned From The Best” and “I Bow Out.” Although, I guess to counter that, the album closes with a spirited, Lauryn Hill-assisted version of Stevie Wonder’s gleeful “I Was Made To Love Her.”
“Whitney: The Greatest Hits” (2000)
Great concept-bad execution. Or maybe bad concept? I don’t know. Who wouldn’t have bought a Whitney hits compilation at this point-especially when you consider the inconsistency of her actual albums. Unfortunately, this two disc set loses major points when you realize that all of her classic dance jams are nowhere to be found in their original versions. And as dated as “How Will I Know” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” may sound these days—those original versions are significantly better than the remixes (by the likes of Thunderpuss 2000 and Hex Hector) offered on this compilation. Listening to the second disc of Whitney: The Greatest Hits is like being stuck in a gay bar in the middle of the afternoon trying to get away from the sketchy 65 year old who’s hitting on you. This set is almost worth it for the handful of previously-unavailable-on-a-Whitney-album Easter eggs (1988’s “One Moment In Time,” her version of “The Star Spangled Banner” and the Jermaine Jackson duet “If You Say My Eyes Are Beautiful”) as well as some solid new songs (the Deborah Cox duet “Same Script, Different Cast,” which is essentially “The Boy Is Mine” for grown-ups, is good, as is the Q-Tip/Raphael Saadiq-produced dance jam “Fine,” but damn—those remixes. No one needs to hear “I Will Always Love You” as a dance number. Really.
“Just Whitney” (2002)
“Just Whitney” had the misfortune of coming right around the same time as the infamous “crack is wack” interview, so it’s never quite gotten it’s just due. Like every album Whitney made, there’s good stuff and there’s bad stuff. The good stuff? Whitney still doing the power-lungs thing on the rock-etched “Tell Me No,” the stately Missy Elliott/Tweet-assisted “Things You Say” and the chilled out “One of These Days” (even though it features the overused Isley Brothers “Between The Sheets” sample.) The bad stuff? Babyface is on his D-game here, as evidenced by the Whitney-by-numbers ballad “Try It On My Own” and the ill-conceived cover of Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life”-seriously, in light of Whitney’s drug problems, which were really just becoming common knowledge-do you really want to give her a song that has the words “light up” in the title? Oh, there’s even Good Bobby and Bad Bobby here. Good Bobby (whose marriage to Whitney was at least good for the major vocal transformation he made) appears as Whitney’s duet partner on “My Love,” while Bad Bobby co-produces the album’s final track, the uber-defensive “Whatchulookinat?” Never heard the song? Picture a song from Michael Jackson’s HIStory—sung by Whitney Houston. Yeah, not exactly her best.
“One Wish: A Holiday Album” (2003)
Whitney sings Christmas music. I won’t lie to you and say I’ve listened to this with any detail–I may have given it a cursory listen on release and quickly abandoned it (as I tend to do with Christmas music.) Maybe I’ll find it cheap next holiday season and pick it up. Till then, we’ll leave this space empty. Sorta.
“I Look To You” (2009)
Lots had happened between 2002-2009, not just in music, but to Whitney. She embarrassed herself tremendously by becoming a TV regular on the reality show “Being Bobby Brown,” had made at least one trip to rehab, got divorced, and perhaps most importantly to her music, had lost a great deal of her lung power and upper range. Now, before we get to talking about how drugs damaged her instrument-let’s also consider the fact that Whitney was a cigarette smoker for something like 30 years (at least,) and THAT may have done more damage to her vocal cords than the drug abuse did.
At any rate-new year, same Whitney, pretty much. Clive Davis saddles her with slightly less schlock than usual-although it’s hard to get over the decision to remake Donny Hathaway’s “A Song For You” as an electro-dance number. Still, Whitney sings with conviction: “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” and the title track are suitably anthemic. The two best songs are the breezy “Like I Never Left” (which features Akon—remember when he was a thing?) and the opening track, “Million Dollar Bill,” which reimagines Whitney as a late-Seventies disco queen to thrilling results. A recent Rolling Stone article indicates that Whitney was interested in covering the Brainstorm dance classic “Loving Is Really My Game,” and given that song’s similarity to “Million Dollar Bill,” I feel like she would’ve sung the holy shit out of that jam.
Truthfully, there’s no one essential Whitney Houston album. Most of her discography has ranged from decent to good, but there’s nothing great all the way through. She would be best served by a greatest hits collection, but there’s not even a decent one of those floating around-at least not in the U.S. The hope is that a proper hits collection (featuring the original versions of her more uptempo songs) will surface at some point.
As for future Whitney material? She will certainly have some new music out this summer as part of the soundtrack to her final filmed performance, Sparkle. Beyond that, it’s doubtful that there’s much meaningful material. Whitney wasn’t the world’s most prolific artist, and on top of that, she wasn’t a songwriter or producer, so it’s unlikely that there’s anything worthwhile in the can.
While waiting for a halfway decent hits collection to hit shelves, check out this Spotify playlist, containing what I consider to be her best work.